Keith's anger, and his love

the same Keith Cylar who won the respect of civic officials for his tireless work with Housing Works clients was arrested more than 50 times for civil disobedience: here he is shown visiting the U.S. Senate chambers*

WBAI's site now has posted part of an absolutely amazing interview which Ben Shepard made with Keith Cylar a little over two years ago.

Keith describes his first experience with AIDS, beginning in the early 80's, and what his world was like at the time.

At that point I was having sex wherever. It was really schizophenic; there was the fear of contagion, but the unforgiving presence of hormones and the need to have sex. I don't regret it. I actually wish that I had more sex than I had back then but I was a prude. I was a nerd. I cried a lot back then because of how lonely I was. It was a very alienated world which didn't necessarily know how to deal with a strong, black, intelligent, jock male who is also a faggot who loves men and loves kinky sex.
Later in the interview Ben asks Keith about ACT UP's Housing Committee, founded in the late 80's, which was the forerunner of Housing Works.
BS: What about this Housing Committee? When did housing become an AIDS issue? When did Housing and AIDS become linked? Its not part of everybody's consciousness?

KC: Let me tell you what was happening. There was a gridlock in the hospital system. Charlie King, Ginny Shubert, Eric Sawyer started recognizing the issue in '88, '87. For me working in the hospital, I couldn't get people out of the hospital because they didn't have a place to live. We'd get 'em well from whatever brought them in; they wouldn't have a place to live. They'd stay in the hospitals and they'd pick up another thing and then they'd die. Remember, 88, 90, 91, 92--New York City literally had hospital gridlock and that was when they were keeping people out on hospital gurneys in the hallways. That was when people were not being fed, bathed or touched. It was horrendous. You can't imagine what it was like to be black, gay, a drug user, transgender, and dying from AIDS.

So housing all of a sudden became this issue. ACT UP recognized it and formed this Housing Committee. I got involved in the Housing Committee when they came to the Majority Action Committee to do a presentation, asking us to help them get money from the floor to go to the First National African American Conference on AIDS. It was going to be in Washington [D.C.]. There was this guy there, Charles King, I sort of ripped into Charles King. We started working together.

The strategy was to push, push, push. It wasn't different than the general ACT UP strategy about inclusion. But it was always to get those populations also included.

It was easy for the world to deal with gay white men. People of color were so far off the Richter scale, and it was also to hold people of color organizations accountable.

If it was the worst of times, people like Keith made it also some of the best of times.
A lot of this stuff for me became very emotional but I have not focused on it because I plan to do this work for a long time and I have learned. This is the problem that happened with ACT UP. You cannot last forever on anger. You cannot last forever on the negative side of emotions. And you really have to learn how to love. And you have to go to much more positive spaces ultimately if you are going to do this for a long time.

And part of what happened with ACT UP was its evolution had to do not only with this intense creative thing and very brilliant people who created and populated and ran organizations. They were so competitive and so angry and bitter at the outside world and they needed [to] be because we were literally fighting for our lives. But inside we needed to learn how to love. We needed to learn how to care for each other. We needed to learn that I wasn‚t necessarily your enemy.

BS: There was also the recognition that doing AIDS work meant doing race, class, and gender work.

KC: That came for people of color. We were trying to do that and they were doing "Drugs into Bodies." So there was always this contention. When ACT UP worked well and there was a real consensus process and you could talk about stuff and you could talk it through, you could work together. And that was when it worked well. The fights that happened out of that lead to people splintering. You cannot build a community in hate, you cannot build a community on anger. You cannot build a community on death and dying. The overwhelming thing about the AIDS epidemic is they died.

We haven't heard the end of Keith's story, especially since his work survives as a very succcessful multi-million dollar service organization which has not compromised its activism or its principles. It's established itself as a very visible and indispensible institution in communities virtually ignored otherwise, if not positively despised.

From almost the beginning, Housing Works has even managed to be considered very chic at the same time as it was saving lives. This was an association which was undoubtedly enormously important both for its fundraising and for the additional self-respect such a cachet was able to encourage among its clients, employees, volunteers and defenders at the barricades.

Remarkably, these were all roles which might be shared even at the same moment by the people associated with Housing Works. Attracting this kind of commitment was another reflection of the large souls both of Charles King and of the good companion we have just lost.

[the image at the top was provided by Terri Smith-Caronia at Housing Works]


[I neglected to mention yesterday that the interview posted on the WBAI site is credited there: An excerpt from the book From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest And Community-Building in the Era of Globalization Edited by Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk]

The April 8 NYTimes includes an obituary: "Keith Cylar, 45; Found Homes for AIDS Patients"

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Published on April 7, 2004 5:28 PM.

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